Saturday, August 18, 2007

Leadership Training (or something like that)

RIC/KA's sea kayaking contingent takes a middle of the road approach to trip leading. The MA based clubs have official trip leaders who take special training. ConnYak has moved to a leaderless trip format. RIC/KA has a group of paddlers, who are screened, that act as trip coordinators.
A coordinator is responsible for choosing the put-in, developing a float plan, and giving the pre-launch talk. Unlike a trip leader, a coordinator is not responsible for screening paddlers or making sure paddlers stick to the proposed plan. While the official line is that a coordinator is not responsible for the group, the coordinators take on the responsibilities of a trip leader. They work to keep the group together, make changes to the float plan based on the conditions and the group composition, and generally keep an eye out for trouble. It can be a lot of work.
This year RIC/KA organized a day of coordinator training with Carl Ladd. (The flat water coordinators spent a day working with Sam Ladd.) Despite my crazy summer schedule and my general lack of coordinating this year, I was invited to participate. However, I decided to leave the space open for another person because my schedule was crazy and I had already taken a coordinator's workshop a few years back.
At the charity event for Carl and Sam, it was brought to my, and H's, attention that my participation was not optional... It was assumed that I was going to attend regardless of how much I protested. So, I protested just enough... and then sheepishly accepted my fate - day of rough water instruction by one of the best coaches around. (Drat!)
I arrived to find the shop bustling. Carl, Sam, and their workers were trying to get three classes organized and open shop. PB, KB (no relation), Tony M., and Tim M. rolled in around the same time as I did. Bubbles showed up just after Tony M. and tried to merge the nose of his Pintail with the stern of Tony's kayak... CC, CM, and MK rounded out the sea kayaking contingency. The sea kayaking group was going down to the Westport River in the Osprey van, so we moved the kayaks onto Carl's trailer, filled out all the required waivers, and wondered how Carl was going to deal with the building wind.
At the put-in our concern grew... The wind was whipping up the river as was the current. Carl's plan was to paddle down to the mouth of the river to play in the currents and see if we could find any rough conditions in which to play. The wind was not only going to make paddling to the mouth a slog, it was also knocking down any waves that thought about poking up their heads. The howl of the wind also limited our ability to communicate on the water.
Undaunted, Carl, and his faithful assistant Hugh, led us out of the boat launch and towards the mouth of the river. As predicted, the paddle was a slog. As usually happens when a RIC/KA group paddles into a head wind, the group spread way out. The stronger paddlers in the group pushed hard to make progress against the wind and broke away from the pack. CC and Carl stopped to fix something and got blown back from the pack.
When we reached the bend, Carl pulled the group together for a teaching moment. He pointed out that it is common for people to get anxious and up their paddling cadence when paddling into the wind. This means that faster paddlers will paddle that much faster. The combination of anxiety and lowered communication increases the risk that a group will spread out. When that happens, the paddlers in that back of the pack become doubly anxious. They not only need to paddle harder to beat the wind, they also need to paddle harder to keep up with the rest of the pack... Their grip tightens up, their cadence picks up too much, their rotation suffers, their focus slips from the water to the paddle spin... "Capsizes rarely happen at the front of the pack."
We all had comments about how to address the situation, or rationalizations for why it happens. The only real point was that it happens and that as leaders, we need to be aware and work to keep the group together - particularly as conditions get tougher.
At the beach along the mouth of the river, Carl again had us group up and laid out a plan for playing while maintaining safety. From the beach, we could see how the wind and the currents were creating nice spots to play, where boat traffic was flowing, and where a capsized paddler would drift. Based on this input we determined the best place to put safeties. The safeties job was to keep an eye on the kayakers playing in the roughest conditions and be ready to rescue. As Carl pointed out, this did not mean the safeties couldn't also play. A few of the safety spots provided opportunities to play. Carl also pointed out that paddlers had to rotate who was a safety. Most important was the reminder that having safeties did NOT absolve the playing paddlers of responsibility for watching out for their compatriots.
As it turned out, rotating in and out of safety was a natural occurrence as we each got tired of banging around in the currents and small standing waves. Playing safety provided a nice chance to rest and recoup. It also provided a chance to watch how conditions were evolving.
We all got plenty of chances to test our mettle and do some rescuing. PB blew a roll and required a quick rescue. The rocks along the beach created some nice eddies and standing waves to play with. The current in the main channel was strong enough to ride. I dropped my paddle and required a stick recovery. Fortunately for me the Q-Boat is very stable in rough water, PB was quick to offer me a bow for stability, and Bubbles was quick to retrieve the stick. Can you say embarrassing....
After lunch, Carl showed us a few land drills for edging and sweep turns. One of Carl's big things is using your lower body to work the kayak. He like to tell people that when you are in a kayak, the hull becomes your legs. Use your core to move the hull like it is an extension of your body. Of course doing this requires that you edge the kayak. The more you edge the more control you get from your legs.
After lunch, we practiced kayak control drills and then headed home. Carl managed to educate us and entertain us despite the wind. There was a lot to process over fish and chips at Evelyn's.

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